Why Your Behavior Plan Isn't Working (Part 2 of 3)

REASON #2: You’re Overly Negative (so Be Positive)

Now that we have a behavior plan that is concrete and specific with a “short distance” between behavior and reward, what else can we do to improve the likelihood of our behavior plan’s success?

When parenting or working with behaviorally challenging children, it’s easy to fall into the Negative Trap. If your child consistently engages in undesired behaviors, you may find yourself frequently using the word “No” or its variants.

Although telling children not to do/touch/say something works for some children, it does not work for yours. Not to mention, you may feel exhausted, down, or angry – not only with attempts to manage your child’s behavior – but also with yourself for being so negative.

Here are some ways to flip the negative to a positive, while still getting the message across.

Reduce ambiguity

Did you ever tell your child, “Stop doing that!” and then he started engaging in a different, yet equally undesired, behavior?

In addition to being specific, it’s important to tell your child what you want him to do (rather than what you don’t want). Therefore, use positive phrasing that reduces ambiguity.

For example,

Problem: Your child gets out of his seat
Negatively worded goal: “No running around.”
Positively worded goal: “Sit for 10 minutes without getting up.”

Problem: Your child has trouble with hitting other children,
Negatively worded goal: "No hitting."
Positively worded goal: “Keep your hands to yourself/by your side.”

Rethink punishment

Children who are acting out often get attention for their off-task behavior. Commenting on a child’s negative behaviors, even when you say “Stop…,” “Don’t…,” “No…,” may reinforce the very behaviors you’re trying to extinguish.

Remember, a good plan focuses on the behaviors you want to see (rather than the ones you don’t). To start, target one or two behaviors, such as teeth brushing in the morning, raising his hand to speak, or finishing a math assignment. Then, identify a reward for your child for when he completes the positive behavior.

The hard part is to NOT punish your child if (and likely when) the positive behavior doesn’t happen. Instead, gently, yet directly, remind your child that he has the choice to complete the task if he wants the reward. The even harder part… being okay with giving your child the option.

(Labeled) Praise, often and always

Follow your child’s compliance of the behavior plan with a labeled praise and an explanation.

Sheila Eyberg, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Florida and creator of Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT), recommends providing children with a lot of "labeled praise"—specific feedback that tells your child exactly what he did that you liked.

Unlabeled praise: “Thank you”
Labeled praise: “Thank you for sitting down and doing what I ask of you.”

Labeling your praises helps reinforce what your child did that earned the praise. After giving a solid labeled praise, feel free to give your child an explanation for why his follow-through is important.

Labeled praise with explanation: “Thank you for sitting down and doing what I ask of you. It’s important for you to stay seated during dinner so you can eat your food safely and cleanly.”

Advanced Move: Catch your child doing good

Praise your child for his on-task and prosocial behaviors - even if they are not part of the formal behavior plan. This idea is challenging because of our tendency to focus on undesired behaviors.

If your child is sitting quietly, paying attention, completing work independently or collaboratively, and/or volunteering to help others, say, " I really appreciate how quietly you're working/how well you're focusing/how well you and your partner are working together/how generous you are by helping your friend. Keep up the good work. I'm proud of you."